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Jews in the Early Modern English Imagination: A Scattered Nation, by Eva Johanna Holmberg. Farnham, UK: Ashgate, 2011. 180 pp. $114.95.
Readers interested in locating fifteenth- and sixteenth-century accounts of encounters with Jews, as well as impressionist accounts of Jewish communities, will find this study to be of immense value. Begun as a dissertation, this book possesses both the strengths and the weaknesses typical of such origins. First there is little theoretical energy expended in this project. Indeed Holmberg eschews theory with a sense of pride. She is less concerned with abstract deductions than she is with constructing immense catalogs of details about Jewish life as depicted in English travel narratives from the Renaissance. After a brief introductory chapter, Holmberg presents her findings in three chapters devoted to the following topics: Jewish living spaces, Jewish religious practices, and finally, Jewish bodies.
In her survey of Jewish geography, Holmberg begins with the observation that “in travel accounts the Jewish lack of land seems to have been an obligatory phrase” (p. 16). Moreover, this condition is perpetuated through the act of banishment, with the result that Jewish exile is “often ascribed to the initiative of a single individual, be it king, Pope or preacher” (p. 21). These circumstances frame Jewish existence in personal terms that mirror the condition of the English traveler whose accounts we are now reading, and this parallel may help explain the fascination Jews held for such writers. The ensuing depictions of Jewish ghettos makes for fascinating reading. About Fynes Moryson’s visit to Prague, we read that the “many families of Jewes liued packed together in one litle house, which makes not only their howses but their streets very filthy, and theire Citty to be a Dunghill. Also they feede continually vpon Onyons and Garlike” (p. 32). We learn all sorts of such facts; for instance, that in Venice the gates were locked on both sides but in Prague “the Jews seem to have had the keys” (p. 36). Most important, in presenting these details Holmberg insists that these writers “were more interested in depicting Jewish customs and objects, than denying the worth of Judaism” (p. 44).
The next chapter consists of various accounts of Jewish religious rituals, accounts that Holmberg notes are “rich in descriptions of movements, gestures, and sound related to diverse liturgies” (p. 70). Moreover, “English observers found Jewish worship confusing not only because of its ritual but because every Jew seemed to participate and take turns in it” (p. 74). In contrast to the first chapter, where Holmberg wrote that these English travelers were not interested in “denying the worth of Judaism,” here she repeatedly notes that these accounts of Jewish prayers were read morally so that “Judaism was represented as a religion with rituals concentrated on the ‘flesh’, all manner of things of evil, ‘fleshly’ things could be associated with it: carnality, sodomy, lacking or unnatural sexual prowess, and emasculation” (p. 90). In short, the consistent pattern in these travel narratives is that when it comes to imagining Jews in a spiritual context, the presentation shifts from the neutrality Holmberg earlier notes and instead takes on a moral tone where the verdict is most often negative.
The final substantive chapter on Jewish bodies is perhaps the most complex in the book because it animates the contradiction just noted above. According to Holmberg, when English travelers thought about Jews as—first and foremost—foreigners, this sort of subjective grounding facilitated the humanistic rendering of those Jews. However, when Jews were viewed in a religious context, these events led to moral condemnation. Bluntly put, the physical body of the Jew then serves as a battleground where a progressive and modern vision of humanism finds itself locked in combat with an earlier yet still vital spiritual world view that insists that the Jew must be understood as ontologically different from the Christian. In her survey of Jewish dress, for instance, Holmberg notes that regulation concerning clothing is an attempt to both police and stabilize such an onotological difference. At the same time however, as Derrida has taught, such attempts also erase those differences. For example, we learn that “in Rome the colour of the Jewish hat was changed from red to yellow because the short-sighted cardinal of Lyons had mistakenly saluted a Jew, taking him for a colleague when passing by in a carriage” (p. 110). Such facts demonstrate the anxiety surrounding the emerging humanistic paradigm in which Jews and Christians are in a real sense identical on the human level. However, at the same time this egalitarian conclusion is resisted through the persistent claims that Jews are deviant creatures with monstrous anatomies. Thus even more notoriously, we get in Holmberg another survey of the literature about the questions concerning the assertion that among Jews there is male menstruation and a common foul smell. Again, the Jewish body hovers between scientifically normal, that is identical with the Christian body, and alternately, ontologically different, because spiritually different. It is with this paradox that Holmberg concludes her study.
With this book, Holmberg has made available to interested scholars a fantastic archive that will clearly reward additional examination. Equally important, her set of conclusions will undoubtedly prompt more valuable work. The complex set of responses given by the English travelers glimpsed in Holmberg is revealing, as I hope I have here shown. At the same time, the actions, speech, and behavior of the Jews themselves in these accounts constitute a precious set of facts that are no doubt just as important—indeed, perhaps more so, and I hope that other scholars with the appropriate training will take up complementary projects using this material.
University of Louisville